Lessons in Time Management

Becoming too productive: Lessons in Time Management

At the start of my career, I studied time management to make myself more productive, thinking that is what I needed to do to be  more successful. Driven by youth, ambition, and stupidity, I had every second of my day jam-packed with productivity. I used text-to-voice to read documents to me as I showered, dressed, and drove to work. I had several computers running simulations and optimizations while I slept and worked on other things.  I graded assignments, wrote papers, and worked on research proposals as I sat in meetings. I wrote project reports and worked through e-mails while I ate. I got up early and stayed up late  so that I had quiet time to work on lectures, new research ideas, or various other duties that required solitude. These are only some examples of how I used to operate.

Fast forward many years…my hyper productivity became my normal working day. It became necessary for me to be super productive every second of every day just to get my normal duties accomplished. I was ignoring my family, my friends and my health, and it just was not sustainable or healthy.

With such an overburdened schedule, I could not react to new opportunities because there was no time in my schedule to do so. I wasn’t able to accommodate anything unexpected – the smallest of issues would quickly escalate into much more serious emergencies due to the multiple other things I had to neglect to deal with the original issue. It was incredibly stressful and exhausting.

It is only now that I understand my health and my family were being sacrificed on the altar of success.

Looking back now, I think the biggest lesson in time management I have learned is it is possible to become too good at it. Time management is not just about becoming more productive. Instead, it is about maintaining a healthy level of productivity.

I learned the hard way that I needed to completely change my way of thinking and my strategy for productivity. I had to learn to be emotionally okay with not getting as much accomplished in a day as I had in the past. I had to alter my entire strategy so that I could still accomplish everything that I wanted to while not sacrificing my family or myself.  

A Different Approach

The short answer to my dilemma was a different approach to time management and proper leadership of a team.

Given the chaotic schedule of a university professor, I found that if I wanted to work x  hours in a week, I should not plan any more than x ÷ 2 hours of work. That way, I had time to handle the unexpected things that inevitably come up without having to sacrifice my schedule or my sanity.

Somewhere along the way, I heard of a rule-of-thumb that stated “to be successful in academia, the number of hours per week you should work is 100 minus your age.” I think this rule-of-thumb is about right for work/life balance, but most ambitious professors work more hours than this. 

From the perspective of managing a healthy work schedule as a team leader, I learned there are two key aspects. First, the team must be comprised of the proper people. Team members with difficult personalities, poor work ethic, need their hand held through every task, or who are otherwise unproductive weaken the team and become a time sink for the leader.

Second, and most importantly, the team should be built with a healthy hierarchy of more senior individuals who can help manage the team and share my leadership tasks. With a good and properly structured team, it became possible for me to accomplish everything that I wanted to in a day, because I was not the only one working to accomplish those things. I am perfectly okay with that. I love working with a strong team, helping the members grow, and watching them achieve great things.

In all honesty, I am quite a hypocrite by passing on this advice – because I still work too much. I am like a 16-year-old boy eager to conquer the world, wrapped in a very thin shell of an older and wiser man who has made mistakes and learned some important lessons. Despite the wisdom I should have by now, I continue to struggle with time management, maintaining a healthy work/life balance, and building teams with a healthy hierarchy. I doubt I will ever get it just right, but I am at least aware of the issues and dealing with them honestly. My final advice is: “Work as hard as you possibly can such that you are still having fun and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.”

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